2020, NR, 84 min. Directed by Liming Li. Starring Dennis To, Michael Wong, Wanliruo Xin, Dongfeng Yue.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Dec. 11, 2020
Over the past two decades, the historical figure of Ip Man – martial arts grandmaster and one-time trainer of Bruce Lee – has grown to a near-mythic status in Chinese cinema. Thanks to the unrelated Donnie Yen-fronted five-film Ip Man franchise, and Wong Kar-wai’s Academy Award-nominated The Grandmaster, the character of Ip Man seems on par with any superhero American studios could produce. And while Yen’s run as the character may be finished, Dennis To’s appears to be on the upswing, with the actor returning to play Ip Man for a third time (following 2010’s The Legend Is Born: Ip Man and 2018 comedy-fantasy Kung Fu League) in Ip Man: Kung Fu Master.
As a police officer in the politically unstable city of Foshan, Ip Man (To) is a set of principles searching for a cause. Caught between two rival criminal organizations – one Chinese, the other Japanese – Ip Man wants nothing more than to witness his son’s birth and hone his skill in the art of Wing Chun. These dreams are set aside when the Japanese cartel begins to smuggle drugs through the Foshan port, forcing Ip Man to rally his countrymen with a one-on-one fight with a Japanese karate master.
At times, Kung Fu Master feels like the work of a director caught between his aspirations and populist appeal. There are moments throughout the film that aspire to the heights of the wuxia canon; when we first meet Ip Man, his fight against a hundred foot soldiers is intercut with a game of xiangqi (Chinese chess), hinting at the violence-as-metaphor visuals that will pop up throughout the film. The fight scenes are also endlessly competent, if a little too prone to interspersed closeups. To is a talented martial artist, and cast and crew work hard to sell the spectacle.
But for every moment when director Liming Li successfully balances stunts and storytelling, there are dozens more where Kung Fu Master succumbs to its broader elements or its pull towards nationalist cinema. Some decisions are downright baffling; what should be the most exciting fight in the film, a battle between Ip Man’s mentor-figure and two stylish assassins, occurs entirely (and frustratingly) off camera. And when the crowd rallies to Ip Man’s cause in the final scenes, chanting “China!” in unison, it betrays its ulterior motivations for Ip Man and his legacy.
As a cultural artifact, Kung Fu Master is a doctoral student’s dream. It is less an adaptation of one man’s life and more a repurposing of his cinematic mythos, combining the barest instances of fact with a revisionist history that places the grandmaster at the center of the Sino-Japanese War. It is not just that the filmmakers have elected to print legend over fact; they have also chosen to add their nationalist themes to Ip Man’s evolving place in Chinese history.
That makes the fact of the film more interesting than the film itself and earns Kung Fu Master a place in dissertations about the character’s complicated cinematic legacy. For moviegoers with a mind for historiography – who enjoy the rewriting of history onscreen as much as the contents of the films themselves – this can be a surprisingly meaty bite of B-movie martial arts. And for the rest of us? There are crowds, and raindrops, and a climactic showdown with a foreign enemy. That should hew close enough to the Ip Man formula to keep any martial arts fan satisfied.
Ip Man: Kung Fu Master is available on VOD now.
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